Exploring the Cognitive Foundations of Cinematic Continuity

by Tim J. Smith

Filmmakers tell stories by selecting and emphasizing key details of an audiovisual scene through editing, cinematography and sound design. Such edited film sequences instantaneously transport the viewer through space and time in ways that are physically impossible and, due to their divergence from reality should pose problems for viewer comprehension. However, filmmakers have at their disposal a suite of cinematic techniques that can minimize viewer awareness of the cuts, create the perception of a continuous scene across sequences of shots and maximize comprehension. In this presentation I will cover the empirical evidence of the impact of these techniques on viewers, both experienced and naïve first-time film viewiers. I will outline the Attentional Theory of Cinematic Continuity (AToCC), a theoretical framework that uses empirical evidence of how we attend to, perceive and comprehend real-world audiovisual scenes to explain how filmmakers have co-opted these natural processes when crafting cinematic stories.

I will argue that in order for us to understand continuity editing we need to understand the role of the viewer in the perceptual construction of a film. What is “flowing” from shot to shot is viewer cognition: what they are attending to, what they are perceiving, and what they are expecting. Continuity editing rules such as Match On Action, POV cuts, Shot/reverse-shot, and 180° Rule use natural attentional cues such as off-screen sounds, conversational turns, motion, gaze cues, and pointing gestures to trigger attentional shifts across cuts. The combination of attentional cues pre-cut, and matching minimal expectations post-cut allow viewer cognition to precede seamlessly from shot to shot, scene to scene, sequence to sequence, and across the entire narrative.


> Tim J. Smith